Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, was removed from ministry Wednesday, when church officials announced that he has been credibly accused of sexually abusing a teenager — and that he had faced three earlier allegations of sexual misconduct with adults.

McCarrick, 87, is one of the highest-profile Catholic leaders to face the accusations of sexual assault that have dogged the church for more than 15 years, since McCarrick was the archbishop of Washington. His removal Wednesday was particularly shocking to many in the Washington Catholic community, since McCarrick helped shape many of the church’s policies for responding to the sexual abuse crisis.

The accusation that prompted the church to remove him from ministry involves a teenager he is alleged to have abused almost 50 years ago, while he was a priest in New York. Additionally, Newark’s archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, and the bishop of the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., James Checchio, said on Wednesday that McCarrick had earlier been accused of sexual misconduct with adults, allegedly committed when he was the leader of those dioceses decades ago. Two of the three allegations led to settlements, they said.

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In a statement, McCarrick said that he learned months ago about the now-adult’s allegation of abuse that was made public Wednesday and that he has “absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse.” While maintaining his innocence, he wrote, “In obedience I accept the decision of The Holy See, that I no longer exercise any public ministry.”

McCarrick, who served as archbishop of Washington from 2001 until he retired in 2006, is the only U.S. cardinal, the highest-ranking role in the Catholic hierarchy other than the pope, to be accused of sexual abuse since the clergy abuse scandal came to light in 2002.

Patrick Noaker, a Minneapolis lawyer representing McCarrick’s alleged victim, said his client was a 16-year-old student at Cathedral Preparatory School and Seminary in Queens in 1971 when he was picked to be an altar server for a special Christmas service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

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McCarrick, who was a monsignor in the New York archdiocese, was measuring the teen for a cassock when he “unzipped his pants and put his hands in the boy’s pants,” Noaker said. The boy withdrew, and McCarrick told him, “Let’s just not tell anybody about this,” Noaker said the man recalled.

Noaker said that his client believed McCarrick’s taking his measurements was a “ruse.”

Preparing for the same Christmas service the next year, in 1972, McCarrick followed the teen into a restroom and “assaulted him, tried to get his hands into his underwear. The boy had to push him away,” Noaker said.

Noaker said his client, now in his early 60s, did not tell church officials about the assaults until the archdiocese created the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program in 2016. The program is charged with reviewing cases of alleged abuse by clergy and compensating victims. Noaker said he and his client met with the review board in April, and they heard Wednesday that the claim was deemed credible. The Washington Post generally does not identify victims of sexual assault.

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Noaker said McCarrick’s actions had a lasting effect on his client, who at the time as a Catholic schoolboy was thinking about becoming a priest. “It knocked him sideways. All of a sudden, that life kind of fell apart,” Noaker said.

The Archdiocese of New York said this is the only abuse allegation against McCarrick reported in their purview. But the New Jersey dioceses where he worked said he had been accused of sexual misconduct before, though not abuse of a minor. McCarrick was the Catholic Church’s top official in Newark and Metuchen when the alleged misconduct would have occurred.

Ordained a priest in 1958, he worked at Catholic University and in Puerto Rico, then served in New York from 1969 to 1981. He served as bishop of Metuchen from 1982 to 1986 and archbishop of Newark from 1986 to 2000.

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He came from Newark to become archbishop of Washington, one of the most prominent Catholic leadership roles in the country.

Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark, said the archdiocese learned of McCarrick’s alleged misconduct many years after he left Newark. Goodness declined to share details of the settlements the New Jersey dioceses reached with the alleged victims, citing victim confidentiality. Nor would he say whether McCarrick was serving as archbishop of Washington or had retired when the New Jersey allegations were made.

Edward McFadden, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Washington, said that no one accused McCarrick of misconduct while he led the archdiocese here and that the archdiocese did not learn of the New Jersey allegations until now.

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Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, a professor at Catholic University, said that McCarrick was allowed to return to ministry even after the two settlements because of church leaders’ process for making judgments about priests who have sex with adults.

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“There’s a determination made whether this person’s going to be safe in the future,” he said, in which church officials take into account considerations such as how long ago the encounter occurred and whether the other person was someone the priest had an improper power dynamic with.

“When it comes to abusing adults, there’s a real concern about sexual exploitation, but there is more room for discernment about whether or not the person is safe for ministry,” Rossetti said.

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Since 2002, however, “there’s a real reticence to return any priest to ministry that’s been sexually involved with anybody,” Rossetti said. “It’s becoming more the exception, frankly, than the rule.”

The New York archdiocese, which learned of the abuse of the teenager, said it turned information over to law enforcement officials while also conducting the church investigation that led to McCarrick’s removal from ministry.

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McCarrick is unlikely to face charges because New York state law does not allow victims of child sexual abuse to press charges after they turn 23, a brief window that advocates say should be expanded.

“Maybe a case as prominent as this will help lawmakers realize: We really do need to change this. Because shouldn’t someone who abuses, no matter how long ago, be held accountable?” said Becky Ianni, the treasurer of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “When a victim is abused, they’re given a life sentence of pain and suffering.”

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Ianni said that the prominence of the cardinal’s case might encourage other victims of clergy abuse to report their stories. “I was abused at the age of 8. I didn’t tell anyone until 48. It’s incredibly hard for victims to come forward,” she said. She said that sometimes, events when victims are in their 40s, 50s or older prompt them to reveal their abuse: Perhaps their child reaches the age they were when they were victimized; or their parents die; or the priest who abused them dies.

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McCarrick expressed an apology to the alleged victim Wednesday, though he says he is innocent. “My sadness was deepened when I was informed that the allegations had been determined credible and substantiated,” he wrote. “I am sorry for the pain the person who brought the charges has gone through, as well as for the scandal such charges cause our people.”

McCarrick was known for traveling the world as a negotiator on human rights, including serving on an advisory committee for the U.S. secretary of state during the Clinton administration and serving on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom from 1999 to 2001. He retired as archbishop of Washington at the mandatory age of 75 but continued a high-profile travel schedule as a major global figure in the church.

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In recent years, he participated in talks on religious freedom and nuclear weapons in China and Iran, part of a globe-trotting role in which he visited troubled locations at the request of the Vatican and occasionally the U.S. State Department.

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A year into McCarrick’s tenure as archbishop of Washington, the Boston Globe exposed the massive scale of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, and McCarrick became a national leader of the church’s response to the crisis. He helped write new standards at the Vatican and for all U.S. bishops, becoming one of the first to strongly support a then-controversial one-strike-and-you’re-out policy for priests found to be abusers. The Post called him “an attractive public face” at a time the church sorely needed one.
McCarrick had embraced mandatory reporting policies even earlier, enacting rules that made Newark churches report abuse to police in the early 1990s, and he pushed for similar policies on the national and global level.

At the time, Rossetti was the president of the St. Luke Institute, a psychological treatment facility for priests and nuns in Silver Spring. About 10 percent of his clergy patients had been accused of sexually abusing minors, Rossetti said.

On Wednesday, Rossetti said he was “stunned” to hear that the cardinal who reshaped the church’s response to abuse had been accused of abuse himself. He said he saw McCarrick’s commitment to the zero-tolerance policy and to mandatory reporting in his statement Wednesday about his own case.

“His statement, I thought, was important. He said it’s important that these allegations be reported to civil authorities and investigated by independent agencies. He’s on board with the new approach. He’s on board with doing these things right,” he said. “I think it’s a witness that no one is above the law . . . if a cardinal is obedient to the new process.”

In the Washington Catholic community, several expressed shock over the removal of the beloved former leader. “It’s especially painful for social justice Catholics. He became this public figure,” said John Gehring, a Catholic author who worked for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops while McCarrick was archbishop of Washington. “He’d be at a social justice rally. You’d see him on the Metro. I was always struck by that simplicity. He was a Pope Francis bishop before there was a Pope Francis. . . . He was this global prince of the church, but he understood the local church.”

Gehring concluded: “This underscores the cancer of clergy abuse.”